Comic books movies and TV shows aren’t the only force driving popular culture. North Americans also obsess over the dead girl/missing girl genre – think Twin Peaks, Gone Girl, and Sharp Objects. Dead girl stories attract huge audiences, but their explorations of human depravity usually don’t leave viewers on a high note. Queue director Aneesh Chaganty, whose new film, Searching, serves up the popcorn-ification of the dead girl genre. Searching works as both a wry social commentary and a gripping postmodern thriller, making this low-budget whodunnit one of the summer’s best surprises.
Searching has one big conceit: the story unfolds through the characters’ computer screens. This approach means watching lots of grainy Skype calls, YouTube clips, and cellphone video. Most impressively, this intimate tactic raises the tension in this claustrophobic nail-biter.
Searching’s opening segment runs through the Kim family’s most important moments, but as seen through a desktop monitor. As a cursor glides from folder to folder we read emails, look at photos, and watch videos from birthdays, piano recitals, and wife and mother Pamela’s (Sara Sohn) fight with lymphoma. By the time Sara loses the battle, we feel like we know her Husband David (John Cho) and 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La).
David, now a single father, is a great guy who means well but comes off as obnoxious early on. He’s lost the love of his life and he copes by keeping a tight grip on his daughter. Or so he thinks. Margot fails to come home one night, and it doesn’t take long for David to lose his shit. He uses every means available to find out what happened; calling parents, friends, and acquaintances and then the police. But David isn’t about to leave the search to the proffesionals. He goes through Margot’s texts, emails, and video diaries to track down clues, and what he discovers is shocking. Margot isn’t the well-adjusted social butterfly he thinks she is and she leads a secret life. As David follows more leads, the search for Margot only gets stranger.
Chaganty and co-screenwriter Sev Ohanian make a compelling distinction between how we present ourselves online and who we really are. An entire generation of teens came of age in a world where the internet always existed. For kids Margot’s age, flicking through Snapchat comes as effortlessly as chewing gum. David is on the other side of the divide. When he grew up, friends talked on the phone, bonded face to face, and everyone agreed online dating was for dweebs. For David, crossing into his daughter’s digital word is as alien as Neo first entering the Matrix.
The generational divide puts David out of his element as he tracks down his child. But he has one secret weapon: an intimate bond with his daughter IRL. Even as Margot masks her identity and lies about her whereabouts, he has an edge over everyone else. David’s lifelong connection to his child gives him insights that you can’t develop through Facebook posts. It’s fascinating watching how this high-tech film makes the case for unfiltered human connection.
Searching is a tricky film to pull off. How does one pitch a movie about a dad going through his kid’s Facebook contacts? Chaganty makes telling this story look effortless, in large part due to casting John Cho. Cho spends almost the entire movie onscreen, often poorly lit and shot from unflattering angles, but he maintains a commanding presence throughout. He starts out sad and clingy and transforms into an empathetic hero. Most impressive, though, is how Cho grounds this overwrought film. Searching’s plot takes Hitchcockian twists and turns, but David’s emotional journey still feels believable. Between carrying this computer-footage movie and his turn in Columbus (one of 2017’s most underrated films), Hollywood must stop sleeping on Cho as a leading man. It’s obvious by now that this guy has the goods.
Nobody will argue that technology isn’t stressing us out. And a decade into the social media age, tech-based parables are now their own entertainment subgenre. So, where does Searching rank among the lot? Searching isn’t as menacing as Black Mirror, witty as Search Party, or poignant as Ingrid Goes West but it does share DNA with all three. It touches on digital threats invading our home, online narcissism, and the wrath of the internet hive-mind, just to name a few. Searching is a movie that has its cake and eats it too; an insane emotional rollercoaster and a clever take on the evolving nature of how we connect with each other.
Chaganty combines our primal fears with our internet-based anxieties to deliver one hell of a potboiler. Searching highlights the gap between who we are and who we pretend to be and shows us what’s at stake when we blur the line between the two.